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Statehouse roundup, 1.23.23: State Board president warns of starved higher ed system


Kevin Richert and Sadie Dittenber - 01/23/2023


Idaho has changed its narrative on K-12 funding, with hundreds of millions of new funding that reversed budget cuts from the Great Recession.


Not so with higher education, the president of the State Board of Education said Monday. And after freezing tuition for three years, and holding its per-student spending flat, a breaking point could be coming. Facing intense inflationary pressures, colleges and universities can only absorb higher operating costs by cutting programs or raising tuition.


State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich addressess legislative budget-writers Monday.

“We have essentially been starving higher education for the past 14 years,” Kurt Liebich told Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee members.


Liebich’s comments kicked off what is known as “Education Week” at the Statehouse, when legislative budget-writers will hear a series of presentations on spending proposals that account for well over half of the state’s overall budget.


The high-stakes nature of Education Week was evident Monday, based on the turnout in JFAC’s cramped third-floor meeting room. State superintendent Debbie Critchfield and most of the state’s college and university presidents were in attendance, even though their budget pitches won’t come until later in the week.


Praising Gov. Brad Little — and his precedessor, Gov. Butch Otter — Liebich said the boost in K-12 funding carries a tradeoff. “We should expect a return on investment.”


One “clean” yardstick of student performance is kindergarten through third-grade scores on the Idaho Reading Indicator, which surpassed pre-pandemic levels last fall. And while Idaho’s 115 school districts might define success differently at the local level, elected trustees need to look at the data of their choice and create a “culture of accountability,” Liebich said.


Offering a general plug for Little’s 2023-24 education budget requests, Liebich made a specific pitch for Little’s “Idaho Launch” proposal to put an additional $80 million into postsecondary scholarships.


The proposal would provide high school graduates up to $8,500 in one-time money, to put toward a two- or four-year degree, a career-technical certificate or workforce training, with an emphasis on preparing young adults for in-demand careers. The scholarship proposal comes as the state faces an ongoing challenge: trying to convince high school graduates to continue their education. The state can offset a low “go-on rate” by recruiting talented workers from out of state — but as a businessman, Liebich said he was uneasy about taking that risk.


Speaking on behalf of the Presidents’ Leadership Council — a coalition of the state’s college and university administrators — College of Southern Idaho President Dean Fisher echoed Liebich’s appeal for Idaho Launch. “We are confident that … (the scholarships) can have a significant positive impact on workforce and economic expansion in Idaho,” he said.


JFAC heard presentations on several smaller education budgets Monday — including a $6.2 million spending plan for the STEM Action Center, which provides teacher training and other initiatives to support science, technology, engineering and math programs; and $908,000 for the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, which authorizes 63 of the state’s 73 charter schools.


The bigger presentations start Tuesday, with Boise State University, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College scheduled to go before JFAC. Critchfield is scheduled to discuss the K-12 budget Wednesday. The four community colleges are on the agenda for Thursday, and the University of Idaho is on the calendar for Friday.


New Idaho Launch bill unveiled

Without discussion, a House committee introduced a slightly tweaked bill creating Little’s Idaho Launch program.


The new bill would replace a first version introduced last week. It would set up Idaho Launch, providing up to $8,500 for high school graduates who want to work in in-demand careers. Graduates could spend the money on a two- or four-year college education, a career-technical certificate or workforce training.


During a brief presentation Monday, House Majority Leader Megan Blanksma talked terminology. She said described Idaho Launch as a grant program to reimburse education costs.


“This is not a scholarship program,” said Blanksma, R-Hammett.


During his Jan. 9 State of the State address, Little twice referred to Idaho Launch as a scholarship program. And Blanksma’s bill proposes phasing out $22 million in other state scholarships, bringing the total funding for the new program to $102 million.


With the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee’s vote Monday, the new bill could come back before lawmakers for a full hearing at a later date.


Yamamoto hints at draft legislation

Kicking off a new week at the Statehouse, Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, gave House Education Committee members some homework Monday morning.


She encouraged lawmakers to read up on education savings accounts (ESAs) — their pros and cons — and come ready for an “unbiased” discussion on the topic later this week.


ESAs — which would direct a portion of public school dollars into individual accounts for families to put toward education expenses, including private school tuition — are the focus of one of this year’s hottest Statehouse debates. ESAs fit under the wide umbrella of “school choice,” and are sometimes referred to as vouchers.


Advocates say the program would open up doors for families and make Idaho’s school choice realm more equitable. Naysayers argue ESAs would cripple the public education system by diverting funds, especially in rural areas where private schools are few and far between. Opponents also say the Legislature should focus first on fully funding the public education system before allowing funds to trickle into private schools.


ESA legislation has been introduced and killed in the House committee before.


Last year, a policy based on Arizona’s ESA law was called into question due to Idaho’s Blaine Amendment, which prevents public dollars from funding parochial schools. Idaho’s Blaine Amendment currently stands, but some lawmakers believe the clause is either no longer valid, or is irrelevant in the conversation about ESAs.


Last week, Critchfield told the House committee she would not support vouchers or any policy that would take away funding from public schools — although she hasn’t completely closed the door to the idea. And in his Jan. 9 State of the State address, Little skirted around the topic of private education, but touted the range of choices in public education that are already available to Idaho families.


Read reporter Kevin Richert’s recent analysis for more on state superintendent Debbie Critchfield’s stance on school choice, vouchers and ESAs.

Neither the House nor the Senate have heard any ESA policies yet this session, but drafts are looming, and Yamamoto insinuated the conversation is coming sooner, rather than later.


She also said legislation related to a contentious Caldwell School Board meeting is “in the works.”


A proposed district policy relating to LGBTQ students drew a boisterous crowd to the Jan. 9 meeting, and after Caldwell GOP state Sen. Chris Trakel criticized the proposal and the trustees, the board adjourned the meeting.


Caldwell’s proposed policy includes language allowing students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their “expressed” gender identity, and requiring staff to refer to students by their preferred pronouns. The policy language comes from the Idaho School Boards Association, according to the district.


And Yamamoto clarified the ISBA’s role in local policymaking Monday. The committee chair said ISBA leaders are sometimes tasked with helping districts avoid litigation. Districts are not required to implement the policies drafted by the ISBA, but can adopt them or use them as a resource if they see a need.


She also said the committee would take the issue “head on.”


“That’s our job, that’s what we are charged with doing,” Yamamoto told the committee and audience. “Something is in the works legislatively. That’s probably as far as I’m going to go with that right now, but I just want you to know that we’re listening and we’re trying to…(be) responsive to the needs of our schools and our districts.”


The committee heard a presentation from the Idaho Digital Learning Alliance following Yamamoto’s introduction.

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